Vermont Distillers Warn of Serious Industry Impacts From Coronavirus

Producers of artisan spirits told Congressman Peter Welch many bottlers may not survive the business losses from the pandemic, including restaurant closures

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The organization that represents makers of artisan spirits in Vermont warned Tuesday that losses from the coronavirus may force a large number of craft producers across the country out of business — permanently.

“We’ve been struggling,” Jeremy Elliott of the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont said Tuesday of his industry as a whole.

Elliott, who co-owns Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, cited a survey by his group’s national counterpart, the American Craft Spirits Association, that showed two-thirds of small producers of craft spirits may not make it through the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The beginning of April, it just went off a cliff,” said Ryan Christiansen of Caledonia Spirits, who serves on the board of the American Craft Spirits Association.

Christiansen’s brand, Barr Hill, uses honey in its production of gin and vodka in Montpelier.

The distiller told NECN & NBC10 Boston that a shift to making and selling hand sanitizers should keep his operation open.

A Vermont distillery is stepping in to help with the severe shortage of hand santizer in New England.

Christiansen noted that while many people may have heard liquor consumption is up during the pandemic, that’s from retail sales. Those are dominated by big national brands — especially with people rushing through stores right now.

Makers of artisan spirits instead move a lot of their bottles through tasting rooms or at farmers markets, and Christiansen pointed out they benefit from knowledgeable clerks in stores where customers can take their time.

Plus, Barr Hill said 40% of its sales are normally made to restaurants.

“When you take restaurants out of the equation, it’s really hard on distillers,” Christiansen observed.

Boston restaurants are now permitted to sell a limited number of supermarket staples as the coronavirus shutdown continues. They don’t need a permit, but they‘ll have to follow food safety guidelines and get approval for delivery, curbside pickup or take out.

Craft beer, wine, hard cider, and liquor makers took their concerns Tuesday to Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

The businesses asked Welch to work in Congress on several issues, including federal excise tax relief, easing deliveries to customers and making the federal Paycheck Protection Program more flexible, especially for seasonal businesses.

“Your industry is so important to Vermont,” Welch told the group, referring to how the craft alcohol sector is popular with travelers and foodies. “If we’re going to recover, you’ve got to be there.”

Welch acknowledged the fate of indie drinkmakers is likely tied to one really big unknown: the appetite of customers, especially tourists, to gather again in restaurants like Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington—which calls the coming months critical.

“The summer is where we make our money,” said Elise Pecor of Vermont Pub & Brewery in the meeting with Rep. Welch.

Welch said specific information from the beverage makers will be helpful when he returns to work in Washington and resumes discussions with colleagues about how to best assist Americans through the remainder of the coronavirus crisis.

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